Film: Bernadine (1957)

June 25, 2015 | By


BLANKFilm: Good

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Genre:  Musical / Comedy

Synopsis: In order to graduate, a speedboat racing teen must study hard and set aside romance for two solid weeks.

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It’s worth noting that while issues of juvenile delinquents and gangs had begun to crop up in films like The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and The Wild One (1953), there remained in production quaint visions of idyllic, highly WASP high school life, with genial characters portrayed by twentysomething actors.

Mary Chase’s play Harvey (1950) had been adapted for the big screen, and apparently Fox’s scouts decided her new play Bernadine would make for an ideal film / teen musical / debut vehicle for their latest contract star, squeaky clean crooner Pat Boone.

The irony is that while known as Boone’s feature film debut, his character isn’t the lead, and there are stretches where Boone isn’t seen on film, or just pops up in short scenes on the phone, since his character of Beau is really an advisor to best friend / bongo-loving Fo-Fo (Dick Sargent) as girl troubles and poor studies threaten his graduation status.

The screen story is kind of muddy: “Bernadine” is the name of an ideal girl that each member of a small club of jocks hope to meet, making crank calls to a local phone company until one day an operator named Jean (Terry Moore) gambles on a date with Fo-Fo, whose sports passion includes handling a speedboat named Bernadine in races in the nearby bay.

Fo-Fo’s dilemmas are his grades – they stink! – and he has one chance to graduate, but the cost is heavy: set aside all social life and romancing for 2 weeks and study hard, after which he can return to being just a good kid wanting to date a slightly older working girl.

Beau’s solution is to get his older brother to ‘safeguard’ Jean from other guys, playing chaperon until an official hand-off after Fo-Fo’s positive grades are confirmed. Problem a) Beau’s brother, on military leave, is too successful in the romance dept.; and b) it’s inevitable Beau’s longtime friendship with Fo-Fo will come to a potentially crashing halt.

Worked into the story are odd junctures where Boone leads peculiar songs that sort of centralize the boys’ feelings about the ideal ‘Bernadine,’ and a calypso-styled ditty where the lyrics quite plainly decree ‘women are dim upstairs,’ a playful tune in 1957 that’s more awkward in 2015.

Boone’s Beau is merely an advisor, consulting issues of women and trying to correct Fo-Fo’s innately clumsy approach with girls, and juggling his own family crises when his older brother (James Drury) returns unexpectedly from the service.

There’s much to dismiss in this very dated take on teen life – the actors are absurdly old for their roles (Boone was 23, and Sargent 27!), the music is rather clumsily inserted into scenes, and the friendship crises is wrapped up pretty fast and neat – but contemporary audiences might find some slight similarities to the teen world of John Hughes. Bernardine isn’t Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), but Boone is very much a Bueller, albeit reduced to a secondary character.

Beau remains calm and fast-thinking in any kind of circumstance, always grinning, and delivering words of wisdom in a calm voice. Like Bueller, he’s also well-off, although many of the kids in Bernadine come from pretty snazzy homesteads. Fo-Fo may have to sell his boat to local dweeb Vernon (unbilled Hooper Dunbar) for cash and buy a car to impress Jean on their first date, but his home still comes with a standard black maid who’s equally concerned / overjoyed when Fo-Fo’s social and pedagogical lives undergo some ups & downs.

The WASPiness and archaic stereotypes are pretty standard in Fox’s production, and the casting is strategic: the ‘kids’ are headlined by up & coming talent, while the parents are played by aging stars and character actors, including Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born), back after a long screen absence for one final movie; Dean Jagger (The Robe, Forty Guns, The Kremlin Letter), whose character actually doesn’t appear until the mid-point as the older father figure that Fo-Fo’s mother will ultimately wed for financial and emotional security; and Walter Abel (Night People, Raintree County) and Natalie Schafer as Beau’s kind of dim-witted parents. (It’s worth noting that years later in Gilligan’s Island Schafer would play the ‘luvvy’ wife of Thurston Howell, played by Jim Backus, a character actor who similarly played parent to a troubled teen in Rebel Without a Cause.)

The relative cluelessness of parents in general is more typical of a John Hughes story; neither mean disciplinarians nor outright daft, but a little eccentric and sometimes smiling dopey in their perfect middle class lives. Fo-Fo’s single mother is the exception, whereas Beau’s family isn’t all different from the Bueller clan, where the youngest child is the wry, smiling con artist, and the older child is wiser to Bueller / Beau’s shenanigans.

The film’s best scene relies on a wordless character: Beau’s conned his mother into letting him take his brother’s gorgeous red roadster for a ‘test drive’ – loaning it to Fo-Fo for his first date – but unbeknownst to Beau, the stiff-lipped Lieutenant is back on leave. When he finds out Beau’s snatched his car, he shows up at the boys’ ‘clubhouse’ and silently drives the car away, leaving Beau standing there with his baffled friends. It’s a great piece of fast, dry comedy, and perhaps an example of why Fox entrusted Henry Levin to helm three Pat Boone films.

Able to handle musical numbers, light drama, and especially humour, Levin went to direct a number of high-profile films – Where the Boys Are (1960), another youth film headlined by a top-selling singer; and the last 3-panel Cinerama fantasy The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) – before ending his career in TV, and passing away in 1980.

Among the cast of Fox contract players, Terry Moore had already appeared in several high-profile CinemaScope productions, including Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and King of the Khyber Rifles (1953) and would have a supporting role in Peyton Place (1957), but after a mix of mostly supporting roles, Moore moved to TV and worked pretty steadily in various genres.

Dick Sargent, the de facto star of the film (but knocked way down in the billing), found greater success in TV, becoming famous as the patient husband to Samantha Stephens in Bewitched (1969-1972).

Pat Boone’s Fox films include the 1957 double-header Bernadine and April Love, Mardi Gras (1958), All Hands on Deck (1961), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), State Fair (1962), The Yellow Canary (1963), The Horror of It All (1964), and Goodbye Charlie (1964). His final feature film, The Cross and the Switchblade (1970), cast Boone as a minister tempering the actions of violent street gangs in 1950s New York City.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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